Peter Martino, chief executive of Annapolis-based Capital Teas, had just closed a deal with the U.S. Naval Academy for a custom tea blend and was wondering whether other schools might be interested in their own unique brand.
Then the epiphany hit him: “I suspected that at most colleges, people drink more beer than tea.”
Martino scooped up 24 bottles of different beers and spent an evening steeping sachets in foaming mugs instead of cups of hot water. “The tea totally changed the character of the beer,” he recalls.
The result: Tea Lager Beer Enhancers, 10 organic blends available separately or in a sampler pack of five. Each foil packet contains six tea bags, with instructions to dangle one sachet in 12 ounces of beer for 5 to 10 minutes. (You can leave it in longer for extra flavor, but too long an exposure turns the beer cloudy and flat.)
I bought a couple of tallboys at a local convenience store and experimented to see what kind of salvage job the teas could do on mass-market yellow lager. Cream Earl Grey, combining bergamot orange and vanilla, added body and a smooth, citrusy flavor to an otherwise wan and watery Coors Light. Provence Rooibos, which promised “ripe berry notes” and “mild lavender,” contributed such a floral bouquet to a glass of Budweiser that my friend and co-taster Noreen wanted to bathe in it. My own impulse was to dunk a sachet in a hoppy ale and pair it with Thai or Indian takeout.
Indeed, Martino’s beer enhancers are also useful for customizing a pint of craft beer. As part of a demo at the Heurich Mansion in April, Nada Minkara, store manager of the Capitol Hill branch of Capital Teas, plunged a packet of genmaicha into a pitcher of Devils Backbone Vienna Lager. A traditional Japanese blend of green tea and roasted rice kernels, the genmaicha added a layer of toastiness to the even-keeled, toffeelike sweetness of the lager.
As Martino sees it, tea has three effects on beer. First, it tends to block the sensory pathways that detect bitter, making the beer taste sweeter.
Second, the tea makes the beer foam up, purging excess CO2 that would otherwise wind up in the drinker’s stomach.
Finally, the tea delivers a mild hit of caffeine. Martino says he and his wife took a few packets to the Munich Oktoberfest last fall and used them to dose liter steins of Paulaner and Hofbrauhaus. He credits the tea with keeping them wide awake to enjoy the amusement park rides after they left the beer tents. “We did the bumper cars after five or six liters of beer,” he laughs.
For drinkers who want to avoid caffeine, Martino offers several uncaffeinated, ersatz tea blends, including Harbor Breeze and On the Waterfront, which derive their flavor from a mix of dried fruit, spices and flower petals.
The beer enhancers are available at Capital Teas’ 14 stores, about half of which are in the suburban Maryland-D.C.-Northern Virginia corridor, or nationwide by mail. A foil pouch of six sachets costs $5, which works out to 83 cents to enhance one beer. (You can buy a sampler of five pouches for $20, a savings of $5.) “They’re among our top 10 online products,” says Martino.
Craft brewers might want to take note. Coffee beers are ubiquitous, tea beers much scarcer. That’s because craft beer drinkers prefer bolder flavors, speculates Matt Brophy, brew master and chief operating officer for Flying Dog Brewery in Frederick. “They want to take a sip and say, ‘Wow! That’s coffee!’ Tea is more subtle. It tends to blend in with the beer.”
Flying Dog’s Earl Grey Black Wheat, the April release in the brewery’s Brewhouse Rarities series, contains “a just a hair under a pound per barrel of tea,” Brophy estimates. He stuffed the tea into a mesh sack the size of a kitchen trash bag (“the same way we dry-hop”), then suspended it by a fishing line in the secondary fermenter. Even though he allowed the Earl Grey to cold-steep for 48 hours, its contribution is restrained: There’s a bit of a tannic bite and an orange-chocolate flavor in the finish from a mingling of the bergamot oil with the roasted malt.
Brewing with tea is like balancing on a high wire, suggests Mitch Steele, brew master for Stone Brewing in Escondido, Calif. You want to extract enough of the tea flavor but prevent too much tannin and cooked-leaf taste from leaching into the beer. Steele has brewed an IPA with Japanese green tea, and he more recently released Stone Chai-Spiced Imperial Russian Stout. This big (10.6 percent alcohol) liquid fudge cake of a beer contains about a quarter-pound per barrel of chai: a blend of black tea and cinnamon, cardamom, clove, ginger and black pepper. The sweeter spices threaten to hijack the brew, but the tea adds a slight astringency that dries out the back of the throat and keeps the taste from being cloying.
Few, if any, breweries get as much mileage out of tea as the Backshore Brewing Co., a brewpub in Ocean City, Md. Head brewer Adam Davis estimates that he sells as much Hoop Tea — a malt-based, high-octane tea that comes in an assortment of flavors including lemon ginger and acai berry — as he does beer.
Davis says he ferments a blend of corn sugar, rice and other ingredients, creating a colorless, neutral-tasting base that measures 17 to 18 percent alcohol. He then dilutes it to 4 percent by adding tea and other flavorings. Backshore has begun distributing two recipes, a classic Southern-style lemon sweet tea and a mango white tea, to other Eastern Shore bars; it will soon market a take-home version in 1 1/2-liter foil pouches.
Although it’s taxed as a beer, Hoop Tea doesn’t taste like one: It’s served uncarbonated and lacks any grain flavor.
Capital Teas’ biggest rival for the allegiance of beer drinkers might be a fledgling Baltimore-based business called Hop Theory. Beginning in July, Hop Theory plans to offer its own flavor-augmenting sachets containing orange peel, coriander and Cascade hops. Chief executive Bobby Gattuso recently raised $25,000 on Kickstarter and plans to follow up with raspberry, pumpkin and double IPA versions. One pouch will contain 12 sachets at a suggested retail price of $14.95, and Gattuso says each sachet can transform up to four 12-ounce beers, which works out to an economical 31-cent upgrade.
A 25-year-old biology major at Towson University, Gattuso was inspired by the bare-bones budgets of college students. “One aspect of craft beer,” he says, “is that at $6, $7 or $8 a bottle, it becomes unaffordable for many people.” But it’s hard to go back to budget brews once you get a taste of better beer. Steep his product in the mass-market stuff, however, and “it truly transforms a light beer,” Gattuso says.
Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.